A staycation is the summer option this year and I decided to spend part of mine in Tuscany. Frances Mayes obligingly produced a book of daily reminiscences and daytrips that chronicles the seasons in Cortona. Her celebrated Bramacole, the restored house in Cortona that was the setting for two previous books, is the center of this story but she also restores a thirteenth-century stone cottage up on a mountain overlooking Cortona. The old place is a tumble-down ruin that becomes a retreat in a wilder part of the countryside. That doesn’t stop her from building a hive-shaped pizza oven in the yard and entertaining hordes of friends in the open, hospitable Tuscan style.
Mayes writes poetically and rapturously about food, wine–lots of wine, flowers, day and night skies, her gardens and the piazzas of the towns she lives in and visits. Her excursions take her to churches and museums in search of paintings by a “local” Renaissance artist, Luca Signorelli, and to picture-postcard Italian tourist icons like Portofino where she and her husband stay in an apartment owned by a friend.
A terrorist warning–a real grenade (not live it turns out) with an ugly note left on her property–shakes her faith in her Tuscan idyll and has her thinking about selling out. But, conversely, the incident and its aftermath reveal deeper layers of the life of Cortona and act as a sort of baptism, annointing her as an insider, after seventeen years. Life in Tuscany is never so sweet as when it is bittersweet.
It is tempting to see all this travel and wine-tasting and strolls in the hills as the trappings of privilege, unappealing in an era which is so hard on dreams and so relentlessly serving up hardship. But Mayes isn’t the least smug about her lovely life. The roof leaks and should really be redone. The screens flap. An owl invades the attic and spiders scuttle across the kitchen. The neighborhood is much noisier than one might expect, or want. Mayes is frank about some uncharming aspects of her life as well as unfailingly appreciative of the small and large moments that delight her.
This Tuscany isn’t at all neat but it’s very civilized, nonetheless. Life is slower, deeper, richer. People are more connected and caring in the intimacy of a small place where families have lived for half a millenniun. Mayes knows how to drop out, savor a brodetto, a grappa, an uninterrupted dive into a good book, a meal with two dozen friends. It’s very personal travel writing. She describes both meticulously and imaginatively and makes no secret of her love affair with all (most) things Tuscan. A peaceful, hassle-free armchair excursion–pity I can’t hop on a plane, restore a ruin or two and lift a glass of prosecco myself.
Every Day in Tuscany: Seasons of an Italian Life Frances Mayes | Braodway Books 2010